I’ve written in the past about my mental health. I didn’t find it easy but I did find it useful to write those things. Thinking back on those posts, and on my struggles with mental health, I recently realised that there was something important missing from the story, and that’s the happy part.
My mental health is currently really good. Not perfect, because nothing ever is, but the best it’s ever been. I’ve made big changes to my life that have made it better. I eat better. I exercise more. I’m more open in talking with people about what’s going on in my head. I use self-reflection and mindfulness and sometimes just giving myself a break. I’ve built up my social life in ways that give me the support I need. Perhaps most importantly, I have a job I enjoy and where I’m in control.
I’ve now been off the anti-depressants for two years. I haven’t seen a counsellor in nearly three years. I would go back to either of those things in a heartbeat if I thought it would be helpful, but right now, I don’t need them, and long may it continue.
Not everybody comes out the other side of depression. Not every mental health problem can be fixed and not everyone gets the support they need. But there can be happy endings. It can work out. You can make a difference to your own life.
One of the hardest challenges for me, as a writer, is knowing when to push myself and when to stop.
It’s a depressive thing as much as a writing one. As I’ve touched on here before, I’ve been dealing with depression for several years. I’m a lot better than I was, but it’s one of those health issues that will probably never entirely go away.
Depression can be a bitch when it comes to creativity. It numbs the brain and wrecks your concentration. But one of the hardest things is knowing how to deal with it. Some days, I get sluggish, but what I need is to push on through. The satisfaction of achievement improves my mood and lifts me up. Other days, I get sluggish, and what I need is to stop. To let my brain rest and recuperate.
The problem is, those two sorts of days feel very, very similar, and it’s hard to analyse them from the inside. Doing what’s good for one can make the other worse. Trying to work out which it is is a total nightmare.
Whatever your mental health, getting the balance right is vital to creativity. Burning out can kill creativity as badly as giving up. I don’t have any easy answers, but just being aware of the problem is a good start.
I don’t often write about my depression. It’s a big part of my life, but it’s not what people read me for. That said, discussing this illness helps to raise awareness, and so to help those struggling with depression, which includes quite a few people I care about. So today, briefly, I’m going to talk about depression and my writing.
When it strikes hard, depression gets in the way of my writing. I can’t put words on the page if just facing the keyboard makes my heart race like a steamtrain, or the thought of getting out of bed leaves me in tears. These are real things that happen to me, though fortunately less often than they used to, and just working through it is never the answer – that sets me back even more.
There’s also a difficult balancing act. It can be near impossible for me to tell the difference between anxiety that I can resolve by working through it and depressive periods where the best thing is to rest. Learning to distinguish between them is a huge part of the struggle.
But facing my depression is the whole reason I write for a living. It forced me to face the reality of what makes me happy and sad, what satisfies me or frustrates me. Doing jobs I didn’t really want to do, but had persuaded myself I could live with, was part of what made me sick. Following my dream of writing for a living has caused struggles, not least financially, but I’m a hell of a lot healthier for it.
Depression is the most wretched experience I’ve ever had, and it can hit anyone. So be kind to yourselves and focus on what really matters to you. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I think it’s what we all need, depressive or not.
I’ve recently been doing some freelance history writing. As part of this, I’ve spent time reading and writing about Henry VIII and his daughter, Mary I. It made me feel some surprisingly extreme things, and I want to talk about that experience and how we deal with emotions when writing for work.
Poor Bloody Mary
Lets start with a history lesson.
Henry VIII is generally treated as a hero or a joke in English history – the strong leader with the six wives. But when we look at his personal life, we see something that by modern standards is pretty monstrous. Among other things, he accused his second wife Anne of cheating on him and had her killed because they’d fallen out; had his fifth wife Catherine killed for actually cheating on him, despite his own numerous extra-marital affairs; declared his daughters Mary and Elizabeth illegitimate and largely excluding them from his life because they weren’t boys; bullied Mary into signing a document that went against both her values and her respect for her late mother, out of fear that he’d have her executed; and much more. You can make all sorts of arguments about the necessity of his actions, but that still looks like horrifying domestic abuse to me, whatever the reasons for it.
There’s a terrible irony to the fact that his daughter Mary helped Henry through a period of depression after Catherine’s cheating and execution. Mary’s own understanding of depression came from the fact that she’d suffered it for years thanks to her father. Long deprived by political circumstances of the chance to marry – something she strongly desired – often isolated from friends and support, when Mary finally married she suffered from a neglectful husband and a series of miscarriages and false pregnancies. The death of many Protestants at her hands is appalling, but so is the suffering she endured in her life, for most of which she suffered from poor physical and mental health.
As I say, Henry is mostly remembered as a great leader and/or punchline, Mary as a villain. It appears that memory, like their lives, has little taste for justice.
Reading and writing about Henry and Mary hit me very hard. I’ve suffered from depression. My wife and I have struggled with the long, frustrating process of trying to have a child, only to be robbed of it by a miscarriage. This stuff hit me where I live, and it hit me hard. I’ve worked in schools and for social service, read case files and heard first hand accounts of the vilest treatment dished out to families by abusers. How much worse then to see the effect of a parent who was outright abusive and who is now regarded in the playful and positive light Henry is.
There’s another irony here, and it’s in my attitude. When a king is presented to me as a villain, like King John has been, and I then learn about the other side of them, I can somewhat come to terms with their appalling behaviour. John was responsible for the death of his nephew among others, but because of his troubled upbringing I’ve come to see him in a more forgiving light than the traditional tales of the evil king. I recognise the hideousness of some of John’s actions, but I can step back and put them in context. In contrast, hearing about Henry filled me with near-unbearable bile. I was literally shaking with anger and sorrow.
Part of this is of course about current discourse, not just history. I’m almost as angry at our idolisation of Henry as at his behaviour. A domestic abuser shouldn’t be seen as a hero or the subject of casual jokes.
And part of it is how personal these issues are, not just to me but in a general sense. Looking at the domestic lives of Henry and Mary takes us past the veil of top level politics, something beyond most of our lives, and into the realm of the personal, where we all live. We all have some experience of love, loss and family. Seeing those things warped and broken affects us all.
Dealing With the Pain
There’s a part of me that wants to rationalise away these feelings. To tell myself that I’m getting wound up over something that’s not about me, that I should just calm down and do my job. This is my work, not a place to get emotional.
And to that I give a heartfelt cry of ‘bullshit!’
These are my feelings. This is the way the world affects me. They are a way of drawing attention to something that is wrong. Millions of years of evolution have equipped me to feel these things, and repressing them isn’t just incredibly unhealthy, it’s a waste of part of my human potential. Our feelings have a legitimate place in every corner of our lives, including our work. How else would we ever care about what we achieve?
More than that, this is the work of writing. Words are meant to move, not just to inform. They’re meant to fill our bellies with fire, our eyes with tears, our hearts with rage, sorrow, love and the desire to change the world.
I’m not saying this experience has been good for me. I’m not saying all this grief and anger I’m feeling for long-dead aristocrats is fun. But it’s a part of writing, a part of reading, a part of responding to history. It’s a part of being human, and that’s something to be proud of.
OK, got that vented, for now at least. In case you hadn’t realised, what you just read was part of my dealing with this.
And now over to you. Are there parts of history or works of fiction that really move you, in happy or unhappy ways? Have they surprised you by doing that? I’d love to read about your experiences in the comments below.
Today is going to be different. I’m going to talk about depression, without flippancy or silly captions. I’m going to share something I’ve only skirted around here before. It seems the most appropriate response to today’s sad news.
I was in my mid teens when I discovered Dead Poets Society. I loved that film and what it stood for, the idea that we could break the mould of expectation and live the lives we wanted. The film’s ending, which shows how social disapproval can break some people but can never break those dreams, added to the film’s power.
Over the years that followed I lost track of that message, of the value of living the life your really, truly want. That led to years wasted in dissatisfaction, followed by my own fight with depression, a fight that I still face even as I type these words. I am healthier and happier for facing that depression, for acknowledging and coming to terms with it, but it has been, and still is, a terrible journey.
That e-book I’ve been talking about for ages? The one I’ve got a cover for, remember that? The main reason it’s not out there and in the hands of readers is my struggle with depression. Because sometimes, when I get emotionally tangled, a ten minute task can feel like a labour beyond the will of Hercules.
The sad news that Dead Poets Society star Robin Williams killed himself following a battle with depression therefore feels horribly poignant. While I have never felt a suicidal impulse, I understand why someone suffering the crushing weight of depression might take that way out. It is never the right answer, but when you feel an unbearable strain just at the thought of getting out of bed in the morning, of deciding what to eat, of putting on your pants, it’s easy to see how oblivion appeals. I wish that he had found another way. I wish that more people did.
For all that our culture has spent years trying to teach us to follow our dreams, society shows us a very different model. That we should live the lives expected of us. That we should not try to live by our desires or express our despairs. It’s no wonder that depression is so prevalent, or so misunderstood.
Clinical depression is not just a bad mood. It is a chemical imbalance in the brain that can make it impossible to recover without help. It often goes undiagnosed and untreated, festering and worsening.
There is no shame in seeking help when you are feeling down, in seeking medical advice and rest when the sad feelings become too much. The part of your brain that’s telling you to be strong, to pull yourself together, to keep it all in – that’s bullshit, that’s like telling someone with a broken leg to go run a marathon. It’s keeping you from getting better, and it’s making the problem worse.
People around you will want to help. Let them.
I’m going to finish with a section taken from the NHS website on symptoms of depression. Please, have a read, and if you think there’s a chance you might be suffering from depression then go and see your doctor. If there’s someone close to you who you think might be suffering, share the list with them.
I struggle with depression still, but it has got better. It keeps getting better. There is always hope.